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What Is Scleroderma?

Scleroderma (“hard skin”) is a relatively uncommon autoimmune disease that causes connective tissues throughout the body to harden. The underlying cause is an inappropriate immune system response. For reasons that are not well understood, the body’s immune system—which normally provides protection against viruses, bacteria and other invaders—inadvertently attacks healthy connective tissues. More specifically, the immune system produces collagen as if it were repairing an injury, but the collagen is unnecessary and simply builds up in connective tissues, sometimes affecting the function of nearby organs.

As a chronic condition, scleroderma cannot be reversed or cured, but it may improve from time to time or even go into remission. Its symptoms, which can vary widely among individuals, can often be managed with treatment.

What are the symptoms of scleroderma?

In many cases, the first signs of scleroderma involve the fingers. Early symptoms may include:

  • Sensitivity to cold and stress
  • Skin color changes
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness

These symptoms, which are known as secondary Raynaud’s syndrome, occur when excess collagen narrows the blood vessels in the fingers, causing them to overreact to cold temperatures and emotional stress.

As the disease progresses, the skin over the fingers and hands becomes tight and the mobility of the joints can be affected.

How is scleroderma treated?

Medication is the main form of treatment for scleroderma. Although there is no way to completely stop the immune system from overproducing collagen, various medications can be used to help control the resulting symptoms and prevent complications. Some options include:

  • Steroid creams or pills to reduce swelling, relieve joint pain and loosen tight skin
  • Blood pressure medications to dilate blood vessels, which can lessen finger sensitivity and help prevent lung and kidney problems
  • Immunosuppressants to slow down the overactive immune system
  • Antacids to relieve gastrointestinal issues, such as heartburn, indigestion, bloating, diarrhea and constipation
  • Antibiotics to help prevent infection from fingertip ulcers
  • Regular influenza and pneumonia vaccinations to help protect the lungs
  • Over-the-counter or prescription pain relievers to improve comfort

Physical therapy, including targeted stretches and exercises, can help keep the joints from becoming too hard to bend. Some people with scleroderma also benefit from wearing warm gloves.

If you have questions or would like to discuss your scleroderma symptoms and treatment options with a rheumatologist at Advanced Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine, contact us to request an appointment at our office in Houston, TX, today.